Iraqis Awash in Gifts From Candidates

There are many ways to describe the campaign strategies now being employed in Iraq. Subtle is not one of them.

Across the country, voters are reaping a windfall as candidates in Sunday’s parliamentary elections offer gifts like heating oil and rice. When a candidate recently showed up in a poor village outside Baquba to distribute frozen chickens — in a literal homage to the political slogan “a chicken in every pot” — so many people rushed to get the free birds that many left disappointed after the supply ran out.

In Babil Province, local candidates have imported sports equipment and thousands of running shoes from China for their constituents. In the southern marshes, politicians travel for hours to pass out toys to children, phone cards to adults and blankets to the poor.

The practice is hardly a secret. When Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was asked about allegations that he gave tribal leaders pistols, emblazoned with a personal stamp, he openly defended the action.

“Some people criticize me for giving people pistols,” he said during a meeting with security officials broadcast on television. “Honestly, I wish I could give a pistol and a rifle to each one who stood beside the government against the gangs to express our appreciation.”

There are no laws governing how political parties raise and spend money, and while the Americans might have brought democracy to this country, campaigning here is done in a distinctly Iraqi way.

For all the outraged speeches, newly created Facebook pages and advertisements on the Arabic satellite channels, Iraqi politics remains an intensely local and personal affair, so much so that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the United States Central Command, has offered a special name for it: Iraqracy.

With less than a week until Election Day, the campaign politics are in full bloom.

A riot of competing banners and portraits shroud the landscape. Unlike the lawn signs that sprout up on neatly manicured lawns during an American campaign, these reflect the physical state of Iraq today. In all shapes and sizes, they hang from blast walls, dangle from razor wire and jut out of roadside rubble.

The jockeying for the best banner locations is so intense that fights have broken out, traffic accidents have increased and volunteers hanging posters have reported being shot at by rivals.

An Iraqi campaign is part Tammany Hall and part Bedouin feast, where leaders display their generosity and hospitality by lavishing food and gifts on their constituents. In return, they expect loyalty.

In fact, there have been so many feasts in the past week that the price of meat has risen as candidates clear out the inventory. One butcher in downtown Baghdad, Muhammad Salal, said the price of sheep meat had gone to $15 per kilogram from $11.

To commemorate the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Tariq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, held a feast last Friday in the Baghdad neighborhood of Adhamiya. While happy to accept free food, some voters still viewed the overtures cynically.

“This is good, try it,” said Meluk Abdul Wahab, as he ate Mr. Hashemi’s cake. But Mr. Wahab was not exactly won over.

“I think I will vote for Hashemi,” he said with a smile. “But if someone else gives me something better, I will vote for him. Because after they win the elections, we will never see them or get anything from them. So I don’t care. I will vote for whoever gives me more.”

Most of the gifts from candidates are utilitarian — blankets for the poor, heating oil, propane tanks, phone cards and food. While residents have reported receiving cash directly, outright bribes are delivered more discreetly.

Political rallies, the hallmark of an American campaign, are rare, in part because of security concerns. When they are staged, they have a Potemkin village quality.

The alliance of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani held the largest rally in Baghdad to date, with hundreds filling a large outdoor soccer stadium on Saturday. But it was not exactly a show of overwhelming public support. Many in the crowd were police officers employed by Mr. Bolani’s ministry. One officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said his battalion had been ordered to attend.

The event was as notable for security as it was for political theater. Iraq Army helicopters circled low overhead, American Apaches higher in the sky. Streets were closed in all directions, snipers lined rooftops and each candidate had his own security detail, forming a phalanx around Mr. Bolani’s tent, a sea of machine guns and stony stairs.

At the end of the rally, doves were released as a symbol of peace. Unfortunately, they were set free just as fireworks burst in the sky, catching many birds in the cross-fire.

Given the difficulty of pulling off large-scale rallies, candidates mainly appeal directly to their constituents. And business owners have been quick to seize the moment.

In Babil Province, Ali Hamdan, the director of an import company, said two candidates had asked him to bring in cheap products from China. Mr. Hamdan secured a deal on thousands of running shoes and other sports equipment, which he said the candidates would distribute in poor neighborhoods and villages.

Riyadh Ali, the director of another import company, said that in response to many requests from candidates, he had ordered four shipping containers full of appliances.

Voters expect the closing days of the campaign to be the most lucrative, and are keeping their hands out and their options open.

“We are still receiving many gifts from the parties,” said Mohamed Jumah, from Babil. One of the candidates gave his family $100 in cash, while another gave it food and building supplies. “I have not decided who I will vote for,” he said.

Much of the gift-giving is described as charity, with the focus on the poor communities. In a country where unemployment is still rampant and basic services abysmal, the need can quickly outstrip the supplies.

When a candidate for a Sunni party made a campaign stop in a poor village near Baquba, he handed out rice, flour and oil. He also brought a limited number of frozen chickens.

“The news of free chickens spread everywhere,” said one resident, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as taking handouts. The candidate was soon overwhelmed and had to promise to return with more chickens. If he can deliver the chickens, the resident said, “he could secure dozens more votes among the poor.”

The gifts do not draw much public outrage, being viewed as part of the campaign. But during a recent meeting with tribal leaders, Ali al-Dabbagh, the government spokesperson, called paying for votes “a cancer on this society.”

While acknowledging that many poor people might accept the gifts, he said that their vote remained their own. “The ballot box will be covered,” he said. “Ask your conscience. Ask God.”

Zaid Thaker contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Basra, Kirkuk, Babil Province and Diyala Province.


spotted by RS

Iraqis Awash in Gifts From Candidates

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